I taught a course last semester called Vocational Orientation—a course designed to help students uncover their divinely appointed callings in life. I began with a series of talks/lectures on the theology of work, rest and play based in part on Genesis 1-2:3. Sadly, many of them (all Christians) often could not put Christian and play in the same sentence. “I did not think you were serious,” one student said, “when you announced we would be discussing play!”
I want to make a distinction between play and leisure—play involves movement like sledding, blowing bubbles, playing football in the snow; leisure involves being relatively stationary. In Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, psychiatrist Richard Winter calls leisure ‘sacred idleness’—which is helpful to know because sometimes people my age need idleness after playing. I played touch football with some friends several years ago and came back with a torn Achilles tendon; I was idle for 6 weeks in a cast.
When was the last time you were serious about playing? Or more specifically, when was the last time you went snow sledding? When was the last time you raked some leaves and then jumped in them? When was the last time you blew some bubbles? When was the last time you played in softball? Played pool? Played tennis? Played golf? Played basketball? Played a video game? Played hide-n-seek?
Where do we begin in order to answer the question, “How serious should we be about play?” The answer is found in your worldview on the subject of play. Albert Wolters in his book, Creation Regained, defines worldview as “the comprehensive framework of one’s basic belief about things; things like God, things like death; things like ethics, things like play.”
So, based on your worldview, what can you say about play? Is it okay to play as adults? Should our play be structured or unstructured? Should it be scheduled? What good is it for? Should adult play be competitive or unfettered?
Another question worth asking is what or who informs our worldview? I can’t speak for you so let me illustrate what and who informs my worldview about play.
My profession informs my worldview about play. Besides my Christian Ministry Studies classes, I also teach a business math course. I often have my students read an article entitled “How Do Students Study?” by Carmen M. Latterell. She teaches calculus. Latterell took a poll of her students to understand them a bit better, especially their study habits. “I work, I have fun, I study in that order,” one student wrote. “I am often out of time by the time I study.” We often talk about being out of time but notice this student takes time to have fun or play.
Our culture informs my worldview about play. Consider the Dave & Busters restaurant franchise. Their motto: “how to act like a kid without being embarrassed about it.” They refer to their restaurant as a “playground for adults, an arcade with liquor, a Vegas casino without money. Call it whatever you want, but the truth is this place will bring out the kid in you and let you relive those days of make-believe with toy soldiers and fire trucks.”
Another example from our society is the NFL play60 campaign. This is from their website:
Childhood obesity rates are at an all-time high: today, nearly one in three kids and teens in the United States are obese or overweight. We know that physical activity produces overall physical, psychological and social benefits, and that inactive children are likely to become inactive adults. That’s why the National Football League and the American Heart Association have teamed up to create the NFL PLAY 60 Challenge (formerly What Moves U), a program that inspires kids to get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day in school and at home. It also helps schools become places that encourage physically active lifestyles year-round.
This team of concerned parties—scientists and athletes—sees the benefit of play. This comes under the umbrella of Francis Schaeffer’s comment, “All truth is God’s truth.” This unlikely pair sees the truthfulness in an active lifestyle instead of a sedentary lifestyle.
Nature informs my worldview about play. During warm days in St. Louis, I eat my lunch outside on the steps to my office building. As I do I am surrounded by tall Linden trees and an acrobatic show as I witness squirrels jumping from limb to limb and chasing one another. What I actually see is squirrels serious about playing. And this from the Vital Measures Harmony Employee Health Letter (June 1998) under the category, “what our cats teach us”: “stretch often—with your whole body; remember to play…” Yes, animals can teach us!
Literary luminaries inform my worldview about play. When commenting on people, C. S. Lewis writes this in The Weight of Glory:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere moral. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours [sic]. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. (p. 46).
Sounds rather like an injunction from Lewis: “We must play.”
The Bible informs my worldview about play. Most of the instances of the word “play” appear in the Old Testament. Two Hebrew words are translated play (sa’al and sahaq); the second word for play, sahaq, has a wide semantic range including to laugh, celebrate, rejoice, dance, entertain, frolic, joke, mock, make a pet, play, revel, smile and scoff. But how the word is used in context is what really matters. Consider these examples:
Isaiah’s description of the peaceable kingdom includes the idea of children playing. “The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest.” (11:8).
Zechariah’s vision of the new, restored Jerusalem also mentions children playing. “The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there” (8:5). God seems to think that play is natural. Can we not then presume that play is beneficial?
Psalm 104:25-26—“Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures innumerable, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan, which you formed to play in it.”
Job 40:20, describing the place where “Behemoth” can be found says: “For the mountains yield food for him where all the wild beasts play.”
In St Matthew’s gospel, Jesus refers to children as having playmates. “But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn’” (11:16-17). Eugene Peterson adds a modern touch in his version, The Message: “How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining… ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired.’”
Notice, there are no references to adults playing in this limited sweep of Scripture. However, I am a child of God the Father. And the Bible often exhorts adults to behave like children at appropriate times. My wife often refers to our son as “Luke’s man-child.” As adults, I think we are all either a “man-child” or a “female-child.” We can have child like tendencies and this is okay!
Nature of this play
If I have convinced you that we (adults) should play, then, to use Gideon Strauss’ phrase, “how shall we then play?” I believe we learn the nature of play or the prescription for play by watching children play. In other words, watching children not only informs my worldview about play but defines play for me. This is what I have noticed:
Kids are not aware of decorum or propriety. I remember once after preaching in Covenant Seminary Chapel, two little kids just started dancing spontaneously. Their father was nearby and they giggled as they choreographed their own dance. Assured of their father’s presence these kids felt at ease to play.
Unlike adults who are slaves to the clock, kids are oblivious to schedule or time. I remember when my 2 year old cousin visited she would awake and say, “Outside, I wanna go outside.” I was still in my pajamas and had not had my morning coffee yet.
Kids play is often not competitive.
Kids are quite creative. The opening to the film, Toy Story 3 depicts a younger Andy being very creative and imaginative. In our neighborhood we have a Joshua and two Calebs—my son (Caleb B.) and the brother of Joshua (Caleb H.). I asked Caleb H., a high school freshman, to explain the rules of their wiffleball game that is played on the edge of my backyard. He replied in an email:
1. If the pitch hits the [lawn] chair without hitting the ground first, it is a strike.
2. If the batter swings and misses, it is a strike.
3. Three strikes are an out.
4. Four balls are a walk.
5. You can choose whether you want to play two or three outs in an inning.
6. If there are more people on base than there are players on the team, you use ‘ghost runners.’
7. Ghost runners remain on the same base unless they are forced to go to the next base by a runner.
8. Fielders may throw the ball at a base to get a force out or they can peg the runner with the ball.
9. If a runner goes half way to the next base, he cannot return to the previous base, he has to keep going and can then get forced out by the fielder.
10. We usually play anywhere from 5 to 9 innings.
11. You can make your own home run line according to where you are playing.
12. If the ball is hit past this line without touching the ground first, it is a home run.
Notice the creativity here? “There are many different ways to play wiffleball,” Caleb concluded his email, “but this is the way we play.” When I arrive at home, Caleb and another teenager are often playing catch and they ‘permit’ me to play catch with them sometimes before I change my clothes.
A former student of mine works at the YMCA and she oversees kids who range in age from 5 to 10 years old. I asked her to jot down her own observations of kids play:
Indeed it is true that children most certainly ‘play.’ They use creativity to express their imagination. However, they are not necessarily free of the pressures, pretense and self-awareness that many adults have. From a young age, their understanding of a social ‘normalcy’ creeps into their interactions with each other and their own sense of play. Starting as young as kindergarten, I found that the children would actually cease a particular kind of play (i.e., hot wheels) and pick up another (i.e., toy guns) based off of the response of their peers. Not only was the issue of self-image portrayed through their play (keep in mind, this occurred across both gender and grade lines), but their own depravity and selfishness hindered them as well. This is not to say there is no care-freeness in their play. It’s just that when it is mixed into their imagination there is a constant self-awareness. This expresses itself through the way in which they ‘use’ play. When play is used positively—it provides the child with an outlet to discern what they might want to be (i.e., playing house, doctor, army men). On the flip side, the children might also use that same way of play and channel it out in a negative way. Simply meaning that those same identities can be used to hide themselves from who they see themselves to be presently (much like adults) or as an escape from the condition of the world around them. Though I thought this could have been my own projection onto the children, I had the opportunity to engage in conversation with a third grade girl about the word ‘play.’ She told me that when she plays she gets to use her imagination and it makes her feel free. (This same girl also has a broken home life in that her parents are deciding whether or not they should divorce, thus resulting in constant fights in front of her and her younger sister. Of course she would find freedom through play.)
My Definition of Play
Based on my observations, the nature of kids and my former student’s observations, I offer this very preliminary definition of play that adults can engage in—play is often spontaneous, often without regard to how one looks, is creative and imaginative, and often does not have the concomitant pressure of being competitive or physically fit or athletic.
We have freedom in Christ to act goofy!
I think the evidence is pretty overwhelming: adults should play, or rather, adults should be serious about playing. Cats, squirrels, birds, and dogs play. Children play. Restaurants like Dave & Busters are intentional about providing a safe place for adults to play. After finishing my lecture on the theology of work, rest and play I said this to my students: “work hard, rest hard and work harder at playing.” Or better, this from Dr. James McLurkin, who delivered the keynote address during Sibley Day at Lindenwood University: “A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between work and play.”
1. Who or what informs your worldview about play?
Copyright © 2011 Luke Bobo
2. What is your opinion on my former student’s observations?
3. When was the last time you played like a child? How did you feel afterwards?
4. Does the idiom, “twice a child, once an adult” have any bearing on your lack of playing?
5. Can we really be secure in Christ and play too?
6. Does the passage, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, but when I became…” have any bearing on your lack of playing?
7. Why doesn’t the Bible mention adults playing? (This is a speculative question.)
8. How does one’s self-image affect the freedom to play?
9. Do professional sports that are so competitive discourage you from playing?
10. Does our freedom to play say anything about our theology or what we believe about God?
11. I saw a license plate that read, “Rx=Play”—is this true?
12. What is your definition of adult play?
13. One of my students in Vocational Orientation went out with some unbelievers for a night of playful fun. Her friends said this about her: “She’s a riot, BUT she’s a Christian.” What’s being communicated here?
14. What does your faith tradition, denomination, etc. say about adults playing? Does it square with Scripture?